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Why We Can’t Afford To Take ‘Baby Steps’ In Drowsy Driving Crisis

Sleep and transportation experts said Tuesday we’ve reached a critical point in the drowsy driving epidemic, and that to save lives the time to proactively campaign against it is right now. 

Speaking at a Harvard School of Public Health event titled “Asleep at the Wheel panelists discussed the crisis of fatigued driving along with potential solutions.

The panel included The Huffington Post editor-in-chief and author of the The Sleep Revolution Arianna Huffington; Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Charles Czeisler, a Harvard sleep researcher; and Jay Winsten, founder of the “Designated Driver” campaign to fight drunk driving in the 1980s and 1990s.

Winsten suggested, based on his experience fighting drunk driving, that “baby steps” could help popularize the risks of drowsy driving among the American public.

“One night per week, people can commit, like on Sunday evenings, to get a good start to the week,” he said.

Huffington disagreed, saying, “I don’t think we can afford baby steps. I think this is a real, international, life-threatening problem … that affects every aspects of our lives.” Sleep deprivation affects “heart disease, diabetes and cancer, not to mention terrible decision-making in politics, corporations and in media,” Huffington said.

“So I’m sorry, we can’t afford baby steps. We have to realize that we’ve been operating under a delusion, and we need to change the way we live,” she added.

The AAA estimates that more than 300,000 crashes each year involve a drowsy driver, with 6,400 resulting in someone’s death.

Czeisler put the human cost of drowsy driving in dramatic perspective, comparing the 6,400 annual deaths to “two 9/11s.” Czeisler also proposed that “sleep-deficient driving” might be a more accurate term, since many sleep-deprived drivers run on so much adrenaline that they may not even realize they are drowsy.

Huffington agreed that “drowsy, as a word, is almost too soft.”

“It sounds almost cute,” she said, when it in fact encompasses a variety of states of mind from exhaustion to slight distraction. 

Huffington explained that she contextualized the crisis within the larger culture of devaluing sleep in modern life. That’s why she launched a campaign where people can pledge not to drive while tired — and also to encourage their friends to do the same.

Driving while tired is difficult to criminalize as there is no objective test that can be administered, like there is for drunk driving, as Blood Alcohol Content can be objectively measured. To combat this NHTSA has expanded the list of driving infractions from just drunkenness or distraction to include drowsiness, according to Rosekind.

As Rosekind has said previously: “Not everyone drinks and drives or texts while driving. But everyone gets tired, and far too often drivers are putting themselves and others at risk by getting behind the wheel without the sleep they need.”

The panelists brainstormed a range of policy measures that could help alleviate drowsy driving. In Massachusetts, said Czeisler, in 2007, the state limited the hours during which young drivers (aged 16 and 17) could be on the road, and stiffened the penalties for violating the regulation from a $30 fine to a three to nine month suspension. This resulted in a 40 percent drop in fatal injuries among young drivers, according to Czeisler. He suggested similar regulations could help discourage late-night driving. 

The panelists also discussed the potential role of technology — like driverless cars, to curb crashes caused by drowsy driving. However, they were circumspect. “I don’t think we can wait for them,” said Czeisler. Huffington agreed, saying she doubted “it will be as imminent as we would like.” And Winsten suggested that driverless cars could actually backfire, removing people’s sense of accountability for their own drowsy driving.

Despite differing emphases, the panelists agreed that behavioral and legislative interventions would be far more effective in addressing the crisis.

Winsten recast his and Huffington’s approaches to the policy needs in a humorous light, suggesting that she was playing the “Sanders” position, and he the “Clinton.” 

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that once you’re a drowsy driver, it’s already too late and that’s why implementing policies and technology as a matter of urgency is so important. As Rosekind said, “Prevention is where you start.”

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